Averse to War

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

The poets are in town. Dozens -- no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine? They are everywhere.

In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes's old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth -- "Through me many long dumb voices" -- over the hummus and merlot.

They are signing fans' battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.

Also, to mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, they are getting ready to march on the White House.

Who isn't, right?

But poets?

The politicians have had their say, and the veterans, the military families, the kids getting arrested in the streets this week -- now it's the poets' turn. They decided to have a convention. Two years in the planning, the four-day Split This Rock Poetry Festival began Thursday and concludes tomorrow afternoon with the march to Lafayette Square. There, the poets -- who have come from California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Texas -- will speak a collective poem to President Bush, with each poet contributing one line of up to 12 words. Nobody has a clue how it will turn out, and everybody's a little nervous.

It's another round in the ageless pen-vs.-sword rivalry. But frankly, after five years of war, more than 100,000 lives lost, and the culture in general continuing its relentless sink into a distracted, easily-bored, Britney-addled coarseness, one side seems to be winning. A hard question must be asked of these poets:

Poetry, huh, yeah, what is it good for?

Mart¿n Espada pauses over his catfish. He's not afraid, he'll take the question. He has published 12 books, won multiple fellowships and awards, is an English professor and Neruda expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"People in this society are starved for meaning," he says. "In a time of war, the government divorces language from meaning. . . . They drain the blood from words. Poets can put the blood back into words."

Or, as he puts it later at Bell Multicultural High School, "No change for the good ever happens without being imagined first. . . . That's where poets come in."

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